New Kids on the IT Block

They're smart, savvy and very techie. They want it all and would rather work at the traditional companies they're with now than at Web start-ups. In this first of a two-part series, Computerworld's Kathleen Melymuka talks with several twentysomething IT pros about what they want out of work.

They're the e-generation. They drank in technology with their mothers' milk. They mastered the mouse before they could speak, typed before they could write. They learned their ABCs on PCs, their arithmetic with Math Blaster. Their toys and tools are digital; their mail, electronic. They have the confidence of people who have always lived amid technology. Change has been the constant in their lives, and they love it.

We talked with 15 of these "new kids" and found them eager, cocky, smart, thoughtful, humble, idealistic and surprising. They combine new tech skills and a hunger for growth with old-fashioned attitudes about work and life.

And listen up, information technology managers: These people didn't come to your company by mistake; they came because they're intrigued by business, they want to contribute and they want you to show them how. If you understand why they came to you in the first place and what they want out of work, you just may be lucky enough to keep them.

Internet Schminternet

Despite the online world they live in, these young folks have chosen to begin their careers at "traditional" companies because they think that choice provides better opportunities for growth and a balanced life.

"A traditional company poses more of a challenge," says Chris Meyerpeter, 27, an IT communications coordinator at Monsanto Co. in St. Louis. "There's more leeway to dabble into different areas and find out what you like."

Jude Shabry, 26, who previously worked for a California start-up, says her job as a systems officer at BankBoston in Boston allows her the luxury of exploring new technologies. "At a small company, you're basically running everything on a day-to-day basis," she says. "There's no time to explore new things. Here, I get a lot of freedom."

And that includes the freedom to go home. These new kids don't identify with the stereotype of the one-dimensional geek burning the midnight oil.

"I don't live to work, I work to live," says Jackie Geraci-Barbanente, 22, an associate systems analyst at Kraft Foods Inc. in Northbrook, Ill. "Here, I've been able to work with new technology and maintain a work/life balance. There's no price I could put on time with my family."

Traditional benefits, especially assistance with continuing education, also count for a lot, says Omar Lari, 25, an analyst who's working on an advanced degree with financial help from his employer, State Street Corp. in Boston.

Another common thread is a fascination with business. "Technology wasn't the reason I picked Kraft," says Madeline Morales, 23, a senior business analyst. "Technology is important, but (I want to) focus on business and understand how each function interacts with the other."

"I wanted a company that could expose me to a variety of areas," agrees Mike Vannoni, 25, a senior business analyst at Kraft. "Even the latest and greatest is not as fulfilling as business strategy."

Choosing a Culture

Although younger folks have a reputation for job-hopping, many like the stability a large company offers. "Caterpillar provides job security that dot-coms don't because their chances of succeeding are minimal," says Keith Brummel, 23, a programmer/analyst at Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria, Ill.

Many were drawn to companies that have well-established, unique cultures. "I had an internship here, and it offered a lifestyle that I like," says Vannoni.

For some, culture trumps even technology. "Start-ups may have newer applications, but I wanted the culture of Southwest," says Colleen Campbell, 24, a programmer/analyst who likes the playful, family atmosphere at Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co.

In contrast, a start-up is culturally volatile, says Kevin Kaiser, a 24-year-old senior business analyst at Kraft. "The culture could change if someone is having a bad day," he says.

Finally, these folks are highly skeptical of tales of easy money in the dot-com world.

"The stories of (people) going off and becoming millionaires are blown out of proportion," says Ingrid Eikinas, 27, an assistant vice president at State Street. "I think I can do much better here."

The new generation especially wants to be challenged and treated as adults. They want their managers to test them, stretch them and give them more than they think the young people can handle. "Throw things at me that are difficult," says Lorraine O'Connor, 24, a senior systems analyst at State Street.

The underlying need is to keep growing. "We're very eager to learn," says Marc Dugger, 26, a programmer/ analyst at Southwest Airlines. "Feed us as much new technology as you can. I just want to know everything."

They want a variety of experiences, but that can be a challenge to IT managers when there's mundane work to accomplish. And they want their managers to think of them as people, not resources. "My team leader cares about me as a person, and that makes me feel good," says Campbell.

They want to feel that they own their work. "I want responsibility and autonomy on a project," says Vannoni.

But they also realize they can be overenthusiastic and don't mind being reined in. "Make sure I stay on a single task instead of getting too spread out," Brummel says. "Keep me focused."

But use a light touch. "Give me a project and trust that I can succeed on my own," says Amy Younggren, 23, a management associate at Prudential Insurance Company of America in Newark, N.J. "Be there for questions but don't be over my shoulder."

Many of these new kids would rather not job-hop. "I can certainly grow my career within Caterpillar," says Jamie Clark, a 22-year-old programmer/analyst.

They reject the traditional IT value of working a burnout schedule. "The old school is, 'Come to work at 5 a.m. and stay till midnight if that's what (we) have to do,' " Kaiser says. "But I have a life outside."

O'Connor notices a generational difference in attitudes toward change. Older IT workers "are used to systems that are more stable," she says. "I expect that the status quo will change quickly."

They tend to see the older folks as the maintainers and themselves as the innovators. "Our generation takes things for granted," says Sohil Shah, 22, a Java programmer at AutoZone Inc. in Memphis. "We don't care how some complex application functions; we just build on it. The older IT people have had the chance to see that application evolve, so they have the knowledge (of how it works)."

Shah says cross-generational teams use the strengths of both generations. "It's important to not get bogged down with those details, because technology is moving so fast," he explains. "But it's still important to know what happened in the past so you don't make mistakes in the future."

Five years from now, most of these young people expect to have MBAs, facilitated and financed by their companies. Many plan to integrate their technology skills with business. "I want to be exposed to a wider range of technology and experience outside technology," says Kaiser. He says he's confident his company can accommodate his plans. "If I get tired of doing systems, I know I'll have the opportunity to move into marketing or whatever," he says.

Some, though equally ambitious, want to stay in technology. "I definitely want to be a tech person," says Shah. "I do not see myself on the business side. I want to move up, but in the technology stream."

Others are leaving their options open. Asked where she wants to be in five years, Eikinas responds, "That changes weekly."

What They Want

The future may be uncertain, but these new kids have clearly thought about what they want for now. "I want personal satisfaction," says Shah. "Every day I should learn something new."

They don't want to be labeled or limited. "I never want to go so far down one line that I end up stuck there," says O'Connor. "I want to develop (not only) technology skills but also personal and social skills."

They're determined to enjoy what they do or stop doing it. "If I don't enjoy coming to work every day, I quit," says Kaiser. "If you don't enjoy what you're doing, it makes the rest of life miserable."

They want to be the best. "I want to be able to get the training I need to remain on the edge," says Meyerpeter.

But beyond everything else, they want balanced lives. They want to integrate technology and business, colleagues and friends, work and pleasure, career and life. "My husband and I are both in technology because it's so much fun," says Eikinas. "I want to be having fun. I want to be inspired."

NEXT WEEK:

You have them on your staff. So how are you going to keep your young IT professionals in today's volatile job market?

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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